It’s understandable that some people might be wary of cruising for the first time. In recent years, ships have become bigger and bigger, with Royal Caribbean®’s 16-deck Symphony of the Seas℠ currently the largest ship out there. At 1,188 feet long (362 metres), it’s slightly longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. It’s also capable of carrying 5,494 people – the population of a small town.

With greater size has come greater safety scrutiny and regulations that mean cruise ships remain incredibly safe. The average cruise ship has five fire-fighting teams, 4,000 smoke detectors, 500 fire extinguishers, 16 miles of sprinkler piping, 5,000 sprinkler heads and 6 miles of fire hose.

Safety rules

All cruise ships operate under international rules, known as Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). These regulate everything from fire safety to navigation and maritime security. There are also strict cruise ship safety standards and security officers onboard patrolling and monitoring for safety issues through cameras.

Reinforcing the onus put on safety is a statement from the Cruise Line International Association. “The cruise industry places its highest priority on the safety and security of its passengers and crew. With more than ten million passengers cruising each year, the industry takes every measure appropriate to ensure that its passengers are safe and that they have an enjoyable vacation experience”.

Research carried out through the Cruise Line International Association has shown a decrease in overall cruise ship operational incidents by 15% between 2009 and 2014. When the report compared cruising against other forms of transport for the same period, it had the fewest fatalities per billion passenger miles.

Can the ship sink or topple?

The quest for safety onboard starts even before a ship leaves the drawing board, never mind the port. Large cruise ships may look top heavy but are designed so that all the heaviest parts are positioned at the bottom, giving the ship a very low centre of gravity and a great deal of stability.

Professor Philip Wilson from the University of Southampton, a specialist in ship dynamics, spoke to the BBC about modern cruise liners. “Modern ships are as safe as they can possibly be. The centre of buoyancy is in the right place… instinctively it doesn’t look right but it is in fact very, very stable, the beam of the boat being very large.”

This stability also means that even in the unlikely event of all the ship’s passengers running to one side of the ship at once, it definitely won’t capsize. The same design features also make cruise ships safe in rough seas. The largest ships in the world are some of the newest and so were created using the latest commercially available technology by leading marine safety and design experts. This raises the bar in terms of features as well as the ship’s inherent safety.

You must listen to the muster

All cruise lines are required by the regulatory authorities to perform a muster drill before departure, which all passengers are required to attend. Bars are even closed so people aren’t tempted to slope off for a drink. An important part of your cruise experience, it shouldn’t be viewed as an inconvenience.

Passengers will be informed of what to do in an emergency, such as how to don a lifejacket and what the alarms mean should they be sounded, as well as where to congregate – or muster – for the lifeboats in the unlikely event of an accident. This is then tested and all passengers must take part. The process is taken very seriously and passengers who fail to muster where instructed can be removed from the ship at the captain’s discretion.

Regulations also require the ship’s crew to regularly practise launching and loading a lifeboat so that they know exactly what to do in an emergency.

Acting responsibly

The same common sense rules apply on cruise ships as they would at home in terms of looking after yourself and those around you. Don’t drink too much and don’t take drinks from strangers, keep your cabin door locked at all times and follow signs put there for your safety. You should also take care when in the pool as the majority of cruise ship pools don’t have lifeguards.

A common area of concern for cruisers is a fear of falling overboard, but this is actually extremely difficult to do due to strict rules for minimum railing and balcony heights, as well as structural barriers.

The future of cruise ship safety

Going forward, cruise lines are continuing to invest in their passengers’ safety. As an example, Carnival’s $700m-plan to upgrade its fleet from 2013 has seen vast improvements, including significant enhancements to emergency power capabilities, new fire safety technology and improved operating procedures across Carnival Corp’s whole fleet including Princess CruisesHolland America LineSeabourn and Cunard.

Hundreds of cruise ships sail millions of nautical miles every year with no major incidents and cruising remains a particularly safe way of travelling.

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